Our future lies in the children who will continue on our legacy. That’s the idea, anyway. As the undisputed and prolific king of horror novels, Stephen King takes an innocuous situation and feeds the conspiracy theory wheel of thought with his latest novel, The Institute. Once again, King dives into the world of children with psychic powers and the effect they have on those around them. Only instead of hiding or suppressing them, here he plays with larger ideas on a much wider stage, one in which not everyone is playing on the same level.
In the foreword, he notes how over 800,000 children go missing each year in the United States and while most are recovered safely, thousands are not. It’s a chilling fact that sets up the idea of just where these children could have disappeared to – and why they went missing.
Though the novel is based around children with psychic powers, it doesn’t start out that way. King is exceptional when it comes to taking two separate situations and bringing them together in a seamless way. Which is how we end up meeting Tim Jamieson first, a one-time supercop from Florida who finds himself out of the job after a mishap at the local mall.
Things quickly shift to Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old child prodigy who is discovered then kidnapped by a shadowy group known as The Institute. Ellis wakes up in a room that’s quite similar to his own, except it doesn’t have any windows. He quickly learns to adapt to his situation amongst the other children being poked and prodded (i.e. tortured) to see whether they’re telepathic (TP) or telekinetic (TK). The staff at the Institute finally ascertain that the idea of physical stress has the ability to make telekinesis or telepathic powers manifest themselves.
The children live in what’s referred to as The Front Half while they are being experimented on. However, there’s a looming threat of The Back Half where they eventually disappear, never to be heard from again. True to King’s style, his villain, Mrs. Sigsby, represents some of the darkest depths of humanity one can only imagine. After spending time in The Front Half, Ellis figures out he has three days once the testing stops before he disappears forever into The Back Half, and in that moment, he makes his daring escape and comes across Jamieson.
King taps into the utilitarian view of society with an almost disconcerting ease, the idea that we should ask ourselves the serious and unpleasant questions; what, or who, should we be willing to sacrifice in the name of survival? What could justify the elimination of global conflicts in the service of a better, safer world for some – but not everyone?
There’s the belief that everyone can’t have it good, and that some have to live a downright awful life to ensure others get to enjoy the fruits of the good life in the name of continuing humanity’s existence. But is it worth it to have torment inflicted on young and gifted children like Ellis? That’s for the reader to decide.
The Institute examines these questions and more about what people do – and would sacrifice – for the greater good, especially when it comes to children with special abilities. King continues to have that uncanny knack to create a story that wraps the darkest of humanity with some of the lightest. And isn’t that what we really want from the king of horror? The questions he provokes in his best work are often reflected back at us, and in society. The Institute may not be the most original work he’s ever produced, but it does have the courage to ask what most mainstream fiction won’t. And hopefully, people will start to pay attention.